Harold Hillman defends "ethical vegetarianism"

The Fall l998 issue of Free Inquiry featured an article by Harold Hillman
on “The Limits of Ethical Vegetarianism.” Hillman is a medical researcher
who is the director of the Unity Laboratory of Applied Neurobiology in the United
Kingdom. On the other hand he considers himself an “ethical vegetarian,”
meaning he doesn’t eat meat because he think it imposes needless suffering or
as he explains it, “ethical vegetarians feel that it is morally wrong to
kill animals to eat when one can live a healthy life without doing so.”

Hillman is certainly a reasonable advocate of this position. For example he
concedes that since “vegetarians tend to eat, smoke and drink less and
exercise more than the population at large … one cannot know for certain whether
their improved health is due to their way of life or to their diets.”

But he also takes his philosophy well beyond eating practices, concluding that
“an ethical vegetarian should not wear leather shoes, belts, or watch straps,
or buy such items as wallets, handbags, baseballs, footballs, or cricket balls”
or even common glues, although Hillman concedes that “I am not sure whether
there are any alternatives to the manufacture of these products at present.”

And yet Hillman believes it is not inconsistent with this doctrine to continue
to perform medical experiments on animals. He writes that “as a medical
researcher, I believe that medical and biological advances — to the advantage
of human beings and animals alike — could not have been made without experiments
on animals.” Hillman does argue that the use of animals should be minimized
where possible, but argues that nonetheless it is consistent with ethical vegetarianism
to continue such experiments.

I happen to think Hillman’s argument is grossly inconsistent. Once Hillman
commits himself to the claim that “we should avoid all pain to animals
and the use of products requiring animals to suffer,” there is no magical
exception that says “except for medical research.” In logical terms,
Hillman is guilty of the fallacy of special pleading (hunting, meat eating and
fur farming are unnecessary, but medical research is my livelihood. You can’t
take that away.)

If people should not buy baseballs that are made with animal products, should
they receive medical treatment which required animals to suffer and die in order
to be developed? Hillman seems to think using animals for medical research is
“necessary” but of course using animals for that purpose is no more
“necessary” than using them for furs or baseball.

I don’t mean to pick on Hillman since I’ve seen some fanatical hunters who
make the opposite argument — that hunting animals in the wild with weapons
such as bows and arrow is a natural and spiritual thing to do, and thus should
continue, while experimenting on animals in labs is a cold calculating process
which should be severely restricted if not banned outright.

As far as I’m concerned once either side of the argument is conceded, the whole
animal rights argument logically follows. If it is immoral to eat animals it
is certainly immoral to perform medical experiments on them and vice versa.
Where ethical vegetarians, a few fanatical hunters and the entire animal rights
community are wrong is in believing either activity is morally questionable.

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